The right hardware using the right software can take you anywhere.

Why should you listen to me when it comes to software?

Because I was once a partner in a contractor-based software company that cost me a bunch of money and a lot of sleepless nights.

There were about 10 of us contractors in our group who all had prior experience with different soft-ware. We were partners with guys who had worked for a contractor-based software company and even knew accounting, too. We all thought, “Whom better than us to fill the void of good software out there that’ll serve us and our fellow contractor?”

Investing in something outside the plumbing, heating and cooling business was nothing new to my family. We had owned a multistate real estate operation, a chain of liquor stores - even an ice cream store.

Sometimes we invested in a new venture and we made a bunch of money. And we learned some-thing besides. Wow! That’s as good as it gets!

Sometimes we invested in something and we broke even. We still learned something and that was OK.

Sometimes we invested in something and we lost a bunch of money and experienced a whole lot of stress. Here’s what I can tell you: This scenario stinks! But, I can also tell you I learned the very best lessons from these failures, so I’d be sure to avoid them in the future.

I share the following lessons with all my new consulting clients when I first visit their shop. Let me share with you what I learned from having been both a contractor seeking software to run my own business, and from being a provider of contractor-based software to others.

Lesson No. 1: If you only have three techs or less to dispatch every day, you can go a long way by just mastering and using the software packages that come with any modern package of busi-ness software. There are typically programs that will do a fine job for your accounts receivable, ac-counts payable, budgeting, scheduling and a whole lot more right out of the box, and that’s a big help without putting too much financial drain on your wallet.

Lesson No. 2: But once you have more than three techs to keep track of every day, you really need to give serious thought to buying an integrated contractor-based software program.

These packages typically have a dispatching program built in to better track and dispatch. A good integrated program minimizes the need to import and export data from one place to another, and keeps you from doing a lot of double entry. Think about it. If you barely have the time to enter data once, where are you going to find the time to enter the data in two places and avoid making errors?

Lesson No. 3: We as contractors love to tinker with stuff, so we want things moved from, say, the right column to the left column. As a former software supplier, I can tell you that when-ever you ask for too many customizations to the package it makes it more difficult to support and a whole lot harder to troubleshoot when something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Whenever possible, learn to do it the way the software provider wants you to do it.

Lesson No. 4: You can spend a lot of money investing in what you think is a good software package and then try to save some bucks by not investing in upgrading your hardware to take advan-tage of it. This is like asking a thoroughbred to drag a stagecoach in the Kentucky Derby.

Lesson No. 5: Train, train, train … and then train some more. There will be a wonderful return on your investment by having both training at the software provider’s shop and then hands-on training at your shop. It’s crucial for a positive outcome.

Lesson No. 6: When your staff is being trained, make sure your staff members are sitting in the chair touching the keys while the software trainer is watching. People learn by touching and do-ing.

One more tip is to have your staff take their own notes. Yes, you’ll get a manual from the software company, but they tend to be too technical. When your people write their own notes, they tend to understand the process better. The very best thing you can do is sweep the most common software processing steps into an operations manual. That’s what I do with my clients, and they love it.

Lesson No. 7: Just as when clients call you to do a long punch list of services as opposed to one small thing, a discount can be expected or at least negotiated. That’s why you should al-ways be compiling your wish list. It’s comprised of what you need and what you’d like. Most good software companies will take care of what you need and let you know how much the what you’d like will cost. Be careful again not to ask for too much customization.

Lesson No. 8: Let some other contractor be the software provider’s guinea pig. This is especially true when the software provider is rolling out a new version of its software or is new to the business. If the software provider is willing to make you a Beta Tester (fancy name for a guinea pig), make sure you’re getting a steep discount and access to the very top of the company for the “when and if” problems arise.

The best thing you can do when looking to purchase new software is take a road trip to see how an-other contractor is using the software. Bring all your questions in writing and leave room to make notes. A demo disc doesn’t really tell you all you need to know the way a live software demonstra-tion with real people working on a fully loaded database does.

Lesson No. 9: Make sure your software will be able to track the key statistics every com-pany should be tracking. Some that come to mind just for techs are billable efficiency, total sales, conversion rate and the amount of the average invoice.

Lesson No. 10: It doesn’t matter how good your software is or how good your hardware is: you must follow a very sound offsite backup routine. Please take a complete backup offsite each day and rotate the backup so you’ll be protected. Continue to protect yourself by having weekly and monthly backups.

Today, there are automatic ways to generate a backup with little or no disruption to your operations. Lose your software or hardware with no offsite backup, and you’ll discover the real meaning of pain.